“Dense life period” is a phrase I’ve used for the past few years to describe a time when life seems to somehow stretch to hold more experiences than usual. The three month period between my last blog post, Equinox, and today has been one of those.
Like any good dense life period, I experienced and embraced a fair amount of emotional and relational challenge and joy. Although that could be its own story (and is, in venues other than a training and travel blog), my story today is about the challenge my body has been facing, and the way it has shaped my trajectory.
On September 10, my resting heart rate bottomed out at 39 beats per minute, 10-15 beats lower than what is normal for me during a high volume training period. I had been observing a slowly declining heart rate during training and at rest for over a month, and I had failed to see it for what it was: heart rate suppression.
Heart rate suppression is a physiologic protection mechanism the body employs essentially to limit further aerobic breakdown. Low heart rate= lower exertion. Its presence meant that I was severely, chronically under-recovered from the training stimulus of the summer, probably of the entire previous year. Its presence meant that I was experiencing over training syndrome.
The phenomenon of over training syndrome (OTS) is not widely discussed in most endurance circles, nor are there many systems in place for early detection and prevention. The details of what is happening physiologically still boggle my mind a little, but here is the basic gist:
Effective training is based on overloading stimulus, then recovering and thereby getting stronger. Too long a period of too much stimulus with insufficient recovery, usually coupled with some other life stresses, can lead a chronic inability to recover, and associated symptoms. Common symptoms include fatigue, suppressed heart rate and other cardiovascular symptoms, inability to sleep despite feeling extremely tired, chronic illness, and performance decline. If you are interested in understanding the physiologic underpinnings of OTS, I highly recommend this article on popular running website iRunFar, written recently by a former biathlon teammate of mine, Corrine Malcolm.
For a 3 week period at the end of September and beginning of October I completely abstained from aerobic exercise. I had a training trip planned for the month of October, and my coach and I chose to go ahead with that plan and focus my training on technique adjustments, leaving aerobic adaptation temporarily out of the equation. So I spent October in New England training with my coach in Putney, Vermont and generally enjoying New England Fall. I got to do a couple workouts with one of the athletes I am coaching, and watch another one of my athletes race. Unfortunately I was dealing with wildly fluctuating energy levels, fatigue during training, and inability to respond to the tiny amount of stimulus I was putting on my body.
By the end of November, my energy levels had stabilized and I was able to get some sort of aerobic activity for at least 15 minutes a day. (That’s how grim it was: 15 minutes every day was an upgrade.) My heart rate data was showing some changes, but it was hard to call them improvements. My resting heart rate was now very high, as was my training heart rate at low energy output. Meanwhile, my heart rate at high effort was very low (around 170 for a 3 minute max effort, like a sprint race. I would expect my heart rate to be mid 190’s for that effort.) I had about three weeks until the first race of the season, and I had no choice but to put on the most optimistic face possible and hope for a miracle.
Miracles don’t happen in endurance sports.
When I was younger, a high school racer, my dad used to tell me there’s no way to fake it in Nordic skiing. Often when I had my best races I convinced myself my result was somehow a fluke, that I wasn’t actually that good. Just as that wasn’t true (there’s no way to fake oxygen uptake and utilization), a severely under-recovered, chronically tired, and now somewhat out-of-shape body was not going to race very fast.
I raced for three weekends: the second Super Tour stop at Sovereign Lakes, BC, a Junior National qualifying race in Bend, OR, and the Eastern Cup Opener in Craftsbury, VT. Though I felt better each time I raced, my results remained the same: I was skiing slower than I’d skied in high school.
Furthermore, racing was the only time I was feeling better. In training and in daily life, I was feeling increasingly exhausted. Ten days ago, my coach and I decided to call off this race season.
I say “decided,” but we didn’t really have a choice.
When it comes to OTS, I think I got lucky. I caught the symptoms early enough and treated them with aggressive enough rest to avoid chronic illness: I’ve maintained basically good health throughout. I have been positively maniacal about sleep, as everyone who has shared a living space with me over the past few months can attest to. I had superb advice from coaches on how to manage my fluctuating energy levels, and thanks to that I was able to essentially “choose my training battles” this fall, making enormous technique gains while avoiding further aerobic breakdown. Mentally it was important for me to give this race season a go, and when it became obvious that it would be dangerous to my health and future prospects in aerobic sports generally to continue racing this season I had a support team there at my side to help the medicine go down.
To that end, now would be a fabulous time to mention how deeply grateful I am to my coach Zach Caldwell, and a long time friend of my family Rick Costanza, who were both there with me at the Eastern Cup Opener to talk through this decision with me, and wipe away a couple tears. To the friends who have reached out to me, asked how I’m doing, and offered their listening ear in person or on the other end of the phone: I cannot tell you how much the support means to me. You’re floating me right now. Thank you. And the friends and mentors who are helping me sort out what comes next now that the future is once again uncertain, your help is invaluable.
So what is next?
What a question! The plan is still in the making. It will be for several months. Here are three of the building blocks:
- A lot of rest. Until I don’t need it anymore. When that will be, and how I will know I have achieved it, are questions I have no answer to at the moment.
- Some activity! Given that I’m not sick and have shown signs of improvement over the past 4 months, I am cleared to do a lot of walking, unlimited yoga, manual labor, a small amount of strength training, and occasional aerobic excursions bookended with ample rest. I might race a tiny little bit for funzies. Zach even granted my wish of doing one of the races at U.S. Nationals this week. Look for me at the bottom of the results sheet!
- A lot of life-planning. The question of where I will be spending the training season in 2019 is wide open. It’s kind of exciting in the way that hugely open expanses of opportunity can be. It’s kind of terrifying in the way that hugely open expanses of opportunity can be.
You might have noticed the lack of the question of whether or not I will continue racing after I recover from this. Really, that question was addressed and answered three years ago, as I worked through my Athletic Identity Crisis.
The process of being an athlete non-linear. Maybe my process is especially so, but I doubt it. At this point I really believe that most of our athletic heroes and idols had periods, perhaps many years long, of seemingly “going backwards” in terms of results, performance, adaptation, and growth. Certainly right now I’m experiencing fears: what if I don’t recover from this? What if I’m too late? What if other people think I’m wasting my time? What if I am wasting my time?
When I get quiet and honest with the voices deep inside me, I hear the truths I have earned in 26 years of deep self-exploration. I see this season, this year, as part of a really long journey, the long process that is loving ski racing. I’m a student of the sport. I’ve known this about myself for a decade. I was cut out for this extended process of learning. I’m hooked on the feeling of pushing my body and feeling that slingshot sensation of recovering stronger and faster than ever. I’m not feeling it right now, but you can bet I will be back for more. I love skiing, and I love training and adapting. I love endurance sports in general. I’m lucky to know this about myself.
I am in this for the long run.
I’d also like to give a plug for the Middlebury Maple Run, a half marathon and 3 mile fun run in Middlebury, Vermont in May. For the second year in a row I have partnered with this sweet race to bring a free training plan to all entrants. If you are in the area, check it out.